Apples rot in Kashmir orchards, as lockdown puts economy in tailspin
It's harvest time, but the market in the northern Kashmiri town of Sopore - usually packed with people, trucks and produce at this time of year - is empty, while in orchards across India's Jammu and Kashmir state unpicked apples rot on the branch.
In one of the world's largest apple growing regions, a weeks-old lockdown imposed after Prime Minister Narendra Modi dramatically abolished the state's special constitutional status has cut transport links with buyers in India and abroad, fruit growers and traders say, plunging the industry into turmoil.
Modi sold the move as a way to spur growth by integrating the state with the rest of India. But, for now, the unrest that has come in the wake of his government's action has upended the economy, further fuelling resentment in the Muslim-majority territory where an armed revolt against India rule has ebbed and flowed over 30 years.
At dawn late last week the market in Sopore, a town known locally as "Little London" for its lush orchards, big houses and relative affluence, was deserted, its gates locked.
"Everyone is scared," a lone trader, rushing to an adjoining mosque for morning prayers, told journalists. "No one will come."
Apples are the lifeblood of Kashmir's economy, involving 3.5 million people, around half the population of the state.
In a surprise move on 5 August, just as the harvest season as getting under way, the government abrogated provisions in India's constitution that gave the Jammu and Kashmir partial autonomy and stipulated only residents could buy property or hold government jobs. Strict movement restrictions were imposed simultaneously and mobile, telephone and Internet connections snapped.
The government said the immediate priority was to prevent an eruption of violence in Kashmir, where more than 40,000 people have been killed since 1989 and that curbs are slowly being eased, including the opening up of landline phones.
Further out, the government has promised rapid economic development and plans an investor summit later this year to attract some of India's top companies to the region, create jobs and lure young people away from militancy.
In the short-term, however, farmers and fruit traders say the clampdown is stopping them from either getting their produce to market or shipping it out to the rest of India. Some say they have also been threatened into stopping work by militant groups.
The real Kashmir
Poets call it one of the most beautiful places on earth. Analysts consider it to be one of the most dangerous areas in the world. But what is Kashmir in reality? By Onkar Singh Janoti
Multicultural: Kashmir is well-known for its cultural and linguistic diversity. The Kashmir Valley has a Muslim majority. Hindus are predominant in Jammu while Ladakh is primarily Buddhist. But interminable violence has damaged the very fabric of society
Saffron: Kashmir is also famous for its saffron. India is the third largest exporter of saffron following Iran and Spain
'Switzerland of the East': Kashmir boasts some of the world's most beautiful flowering meadows and snow-capped peaks. Many people call it "The Switzerland of the East". On average, Jammu and Kashmir have welcomed over 1 million tourists in recent years
Under a blanket of snow: Kashmir wears pure white in winter. Many areas are perfect for winter sports but lack infrastructure. Islamist violence remains the biggest challenge
Rivers: the Himalayan part of Kashmir is the source of fresh water for more than 20 rivers, among which the Indus, Neelum and Ravi are the biggest. All these rivers flow from India into Pakistan
Wood: Kashmir is also famous for its wood, the Kashmir willow. Experts believe that it is the best wood for making a cricket bat. Kashmiri wood is also used for building boats
Sufism: Sufism, the mystical dimension of Islam, reached Kashmir in the 16th century. The Sufi tradition is associated with religious harmony. Many of the saints held dear by Kashmiris were Sufi monks. Sufi singers such as Abida Parveen are popular to this day
Kashmir on the silver screen: Kashmir used to be the most popular location of the Indian film industry during the 1980s. It was a golden era for Kashmir. However, the valley has witnessed violence on an almost daily basis ever since. These days, only one or two films are shot on location in Kashmir every year
Fighting in the clouds: the Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan has been going on 1948 and experts see little hope of a solution in the foreseeable future. Both countries spend lots of resources on their half of the divided territory, with their respective armies squared off on what some view as the highest battlefield in the world, the Siachen glacier (5,753m)
In orchard after orchard surrounding Sopore, apples hung rotting on trees. "We are stuck from both sides," said Haji, a trader, sitting inside a sprawling two-storey house in Sopore. "We can neither go here, nor there."
Business people who spoke to journalists say it is not just the fruit industry that is reeling - two other key sectors of Kashmir's economy, tourism and handicrafts, have also been hit hard.
Shameem Ahmed, a travel agent who owns a houseboat in the summer capital Srinagar, said this year's tourist season was completely wiped out.
"August was peak season and we had bookings up to October," he said. "It will take a long time to revive and we don't know what will happen next."
The near complete lack of tourists has also hit carpet traders such as Shoukat Ahmed.
"When there are no tourists, there are no sales," he said. "We are also unable to sell across India because communication is down."
At a major chamber of commerce in Srinagar, some members said the continuing lack of internet and mobile connections had paralysed their work, including the ability to file taxes and make bank transactions.
Some businessmen have also been among the hundreds of politicians and civil society leaders detained by the authorities since early August to dampen any backlash.
While many of those arrested across the region have since been released, Haseeb Drabu, a former state finance minister from a local party once allied with Modi's ruling BJP, said outsiders were now balking at doing business with Kashmiris.
"With a few businessmen raided and more under detention, why would anyone from the rest of the country engage with them and subject himself to a possible enquiry of his transaction and opening of his books?" Drabu said.
India and Pakistan have twice gone to war over Kashmir, which is divided between them but both claim in full and it remains at the heart of decades of hostility.
In February, the nuclear-armed neighbours engaged in an aerial duel after a deadly militant attack on an Indian paramilitary convoy in Kashmir, raising the fear of a broader conflict.
The latest bout of instability has been devastating to the likes of Manzoor Kolu, who runs a five-roomed houseboat on Srinagar's mirror-calm Dal lake, framed by snow-clad mountains.
Days before 5 August, Kolu said police had come asking him to move tourists out of the property, fearing unrest.
"They told me that if anything happens, I would be responsible," he said. His four guests, all Indian tourists, left shortly after. No guest has come since.
"Now we have to wait until next April. It's hopeless," he said, sitting inside the living room of the 35-year-old boat, packed with intricately carved wooden furniture and traditional Kashmiri carpets. "So many times, I've thought of selling, but this is my father's whole life's achievement."
Kashmir's tourism industry has lost momentum in recent years, starting with devastating floods in 2014 and followed by a sustained period of unrest in 2016.
Tourist numbers had begun improving between April and July this year, government data showed, only to drop off a cliff in August. Only 10,130 tourists came last month, compared with nearly 150,000 in July and more than 160,000 in June this year.
In a one-storey house in Srinagar's working-class Zoonimar neighbourhood, Abdul Hamid Shah sits beneath a window quietly embroidering a Kashmiri shawl. Each shawl is at least three months' work and some take a whole year to complete.
Shah is typically paid 35,000 Indian rupees ($490) per shawl, which he often gets in monthly instalments of around 10,000 rupees. Since August, his payments from a shawl trader he has worked with for a decade have shrunk.
"He's telling me he doesn't have money because there is no business," Shah said (Reuters)